By Ryan Williams, NOLS instructor
In December 2015, fellow instructor and NOLS Southwest director Lindsay Nohl and I loaded up our truck and drove from Tucson, Arizona into West Texas to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Our objective was to spend five days packrafting the Upper Canyons of the Rio Grande and mountain biking some of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epic trail called “Other Side of Nowhere” in order to develop bike-packrafting skills.
We have both been mountain biking for a few years and bikepacking has been a natural way to expand the lightweight backpacking skills we’ve learned working for NOLS. We were feeling pretty comfortable about the riding portion of this trip. The major growth for us came on the river.
We’ve both spent time paddling, but it had been a few years since either of us had done it. We had to ask ourselves questions like, “Do we still remember how to read water and paddle?” and, “How do you attach a mountain bike to a packraft?!”
As lightweight backpackers, we are always looking for ways to utilize our skills in new areas, and this trip took it to another level for us. Our loads were not what you would call “light,” but we still needed to be efficient since we’d be biking with extra gear like personal flotation devices (PFDs) and dry suits. Also, in December, we tiptoed the line of bringing just enough gear to stay warm, but not too much to weigh down the bikes even more.
As with most trips primarily planned by me, this trip had a bit of a “seat of the pants” feeling to it. We started out biking without really knowing where we might be able to put in on the river. We also weren’t exactly sure how big the rapids might be at the current water level or where we’d be camping each night in the park.
Different leadership styles can have their challenges when working in a team. Lindsay is more of a planner than I am, and she likes to have as much information as possible before starting an adventure. My style is more relaxed and I thrive on being able to figure things out in the moment.
One rapid we encountered illustrated this point strongly: just leaving our first camp, we unknowingly hit the biggest rapid of the trip. I had “scouted” and thought it was just a riffle. By the time we recognized that it was big, we couldn’t stop and had to just read and run it as we went. I was thrilled, Lindsay a little less so. We talked about it, slowed down when approaching rapids, scouted more thoroughly, and ended up having a great river trip. It always takes clear communication and finding a way to balance different styles when working on a team … maybe especially so with your partner!
Other highlights for us included biking past historical sites, sleeping out under the stars during a meteor shower, and interacting with park staff who were curious and encouraging. One said, “I always love helping people with their harebrained plans.” Another claimed we had set some sort of record, or at least did a new type of trip in their park.
If you make it to the Big Bend area, make sure you check out some of what makes it so unique. The faux Marfa Prada “store,” the local scene at the Starlight Theater in Terlingua, beautiful murals in Alpine, and the Chihuahuan desert scenery of Big Bend National Park.
During the five -day trip, we paddled 29 miles down the border of Mexico through six Class II - III rapids. We then pedaled 90 miles on beautiful singletrack trails inside the state park to complete the loop. The trip was a great success and we hope to inspire our future students to seek out adventures with lightweight systems and multiple forms of transport after their time at NOLS.
Lastly, thanks to the NOLS Field Staffing and Training department for helping support our trip through the Instructor Development Fund. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Lindsay is a backpacking, climbing, and caving instructor for NOLS as well the director of NOLS Southwest. She spends most of her spare time riding mountain bikes and cheering for the New England Patriots.